Modi’s message was non-belligerent, measured and firm. It signaled to China and the world that India will and is capable of defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

By Arvind Gupta

The brutal killing of 20 Indian soldiers by the Chinese troops at the Galwan river area on the Indian side of the India-China Line Of Control (LAC) in Ladakh on 15-16th June has led to national outrage in India. The brave Indian Army soldiers were involved in the verification of the “disengagement” exercise that the senior military commanders of the two sides had agreed upon earlier. The nation paid homage to the sacrifice of the Army heroes. The Chinese side, which suffered heavy casualties, has refused to acknowledge its losses and not reveal the figures.

This incident will have a deep impact on the Sino Indian relations. The mistrust between India and China will increase further. The incident is completely in variance with the much celebrated “Wuhan Spirit” and “Chennai Connect” Modi and Xi carefully crafted in recent years to underplay the differences and build on convergences. They are being seen as unreliable untrustworthy and indulging in double speak.

The Chinese image in India has suffered terribly. China would engage with India to prevent it going into the Western fold presenting a challenge to China’s rise. However, it showed no interest whatsoever in demarcating the LAC and resolving the boundary question which is at the heart of Sino Indian relations. It has used the ambiguity of the undefined, undemaracted Line of Actual Control to keep India unsettled. In keeping with its assertive and aggressive behaviour in the East China Sea, South China Sea, vis a vis Vietnam and Indonesia, against Hong Kong and Taiwan, China precipitated incidents on the eastern and western sectors of the India-China border to raise tensions. The Chinese assertiveness may have something to do with its internal problems relating to Xi’s handling of the Wuhan virus and the slowing economy.

The Indian position on the current stand-off has been stated by Prime Mr Modi’s message of 17th June. The key points of his message were that the sacrifice of the Indian soldiers would not go in vain; India wants peace but not at the expense of its sovereignty and territorial integrity which it will defend in the tradition of valour and sacrifice.

Modi’s message was non-belligerent, measured and firm. It signalled to China and the world that India will and is capable of defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

It may be recalled that when over 40 Indian troops belonging to the Central Reserve Police Force were killed in a terrorist attack in Pulwama in February 2019, Mr Modi had said that the sacrifice of the soldiers would not go in vain. This was followed by the Indian Air Force launching airstrikes in Balakot deep inside Pakistan to destroy the terrorist camps. While the situation this time is different as terrorism is not the issue, the reference to the sacrifice of the soldiers is a pointer to the fact that India will not forget the terrible incident and take suitable measures.

External Affairs Minister Jaishankar also had a telephonic conversation with his counterpart Wang Yi on 17 June. According to an official statement, the Indian minister conveyed to his Chinese counterpart that this “unprecedented development” will have a “serious impact” on the bilateral relationship and that China should “reassess” its actions and take “corrective” steps and implement the “understanding that was reached by the Senior Commanders on 6th June.” Thus, India is not backing down in this confrontation.

On their part, the Chinese have also taken a hard stance so far, having blamed India for twice coming into the Chinese territory. They were also be considering their options after Modi’s message.

India has decided not to attend the foreign minister-level meeting of the Russian-India-China trilateral in Moscow in June. The meeting has been postponed by Russia. This is entirely due to the tensions between China and Russia.
The discussions at the military-political level are going on to defuse the crisis. However, the positions of hardened and the outcome of these negotiations is so far certain.

In the meanwhile, media is focusing on the future course of action and speculating whether India and China would go to war.

International reactions have started coming in. The UK has come up with a statement that it hopes that the two countries would resolve their differences through dialogue. The UN Secretary-General has also given a similar statement. More reactions would be forthcoming soon.

India has invested a lot in recent years in building strategic partnerships with key countries. Recently, Prime Minister of Australia Mr Scott Morrison and Prime Minister Modi held a virtual summit which raised the bilateral relations to the level of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. India would be hoping that the diplomatic investment it has made in the strategic partnerships will pay a dividend and the influential countries were back India on the current stand-off. The fact that China is under considerable international pressure on account of its handling of the Wuhan virus goes in favour of India.

China’s assertiveness and bullying in the South China Sea have been noticed by all. However, the ASEAN countries face a serious dilemma which was expressed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore recently. He said that Asian countries would not like to be put in the unenviable position of choosing between China and the US. This dilemma will be shared by many ASEAN countries who have been smarting under China’s assertiveness but cannot stand up because of deep linkages between their economies and that of China. As a middle power, Australia also faces a similar dilemma. It may refer multilateral route to the resolution of India China problem. That will however not be acceptable to India. It remains to be seen how ASEAN reacts to the current India China standoff.

India will have to watch carefully the reaction of its South Asian neighbours. Prime Mr Modi reached out to the SAARC countries to encourage cooperation to fight Covid-19 jointly. Unfortunately, Nepal has chosen this precise moment to highlight the border issue with India which otherwise had been lying dormant for several decades. Nepal’s action has not gone down well with the Indian public opinion.

Prime Minister Modi’s message is reassuring for the nation. Although the political parties, as usual, are playing politics at this critical juncture, Prime Minister Modi has decided to reach out to them through the mechanism of the all-party meet. If the past is any guide, the entire country will come together and support the government and the armed forces during the time of crisis.

It is difficult to predict the denouement of the present crisis. Hopefully, the military-political discussions will lead to some kind of resolution of the current issue. There is already a consensus which has to be implemented. That should not be difficult. However, the Chinese conduct has clouded the future of Sino Indian relations which have entered unchartered territory. There is a widespread feeling in India that India has given concessions to China without getting anything in return. Equally, the public is of the view that India should not be seen as weak in this stand-off. India, despite its current problems relating to coronavirus and the restoration of the economy, is no pushover. It can and must look China into the eyes on the vital question of which sovereignty and territorial integrity. Mr Modi’s message reassures the country that India is capable and willing to do that.

The author is Director at VIF

This article was first published by VIF and belongs to them